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Reviewing “You Are What You Love” by James K.A. Smith

May 2nd, 2016 | 11 min read

By Guest Writer

I’m pleased to run this guest review by Dr. Jeffrey Bilbro of Spring Arbor University of James K.A. Smith’s new book You Are What You Love. You can follow Dr. Bilbro on Twitter @jeff_bilbro.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Verses like this one are often cited to urge the importance of Christian worldview training. They seem to indicate that the Christian life is about thinking the right thoughts. Yet in the previous verse, Paul tells the Roman Christians to “present your bodies” to God, linking the way we use our bodies to intellectual renewal.

Paul established this connection a few chapters earlier when—after his agonized confession in chapter seven that his intellectual assent to the law of God doesn’t prevent him from sinning with his body—he writes that “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5). The way we live shapes our thinking. Significantly, Paul concludes chapter eight not with seven secrets for obedient living, but with a paean of gratitude for Christ’s love. Perhaps Paul is suggesting that the way we live is shaped by our loves more than by our ideas.

These connections between what we love, the way we live, and the content of our thoughts form the basis of James K. A. Smith’s newest book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. This is an accessible and practical book, but it’s not a self-help book that promises some brand new insight. Rather, Smith works to rehabilitate ancient Christian wisdom found in the Bible, Augustine, and historic church practices to show how our assumptions about the human person and Christianity might be informed more by our Western, consumer culture than by the gospel. He accomplishes this goal by re-embodying Christian faith and brilliantly illuminating the ways that the bad doctrine prevalent in the American church is the natural result of carelessly adopting a secular culture’s daily liturgies.

Smith begins by observing that the first question Jesus asks his would-be disciples in John 1 is “What do you want?” Jesus doesn’t ask “‘What do you know?’ He doesn’t even ask, ‘What do you believe?’ He asks, ‘What do you want?’” (1). This doesn’t mean that knowledge isn’t important; it just means that what we desire fundamentally defines who we are. As Smith points out, we’ve all had the experience of hearing an insightful sermon or lecture, feeling a rich ah-ha moment, and then leaving the auditorium and not changing anything about how we live. His solution isn’t to eschew knowledge, but to focus on the connection between our habits and our desires: “To recognize the limits of knowledge is not to embrace ignorance. We don’t need less than knowledge; we need more. We need to recognize the power of habit” (6). Drawing on Aristotelian virtue ethics, as developed in the Christian tradition by Aquinas and MacIntyre, Smith argues that “We learn to love, then, not primarily by acquiring information about what we should love but rather through practices that form the habits of how we love” (21). This fundamental anthropological claim leads to Smith’s argument that while Christians should certainly attend to the content of our doctrine, we should also closely examine the habits that embody—and all too often contradict—our theology.

To this end, Smith provides readings of various cultural liturgies that might deform our loves. Shopping in a mall, updating our Facebook status, or attending a sporting event can all cultivate warped desires. We might know all the right answers in Sunday school and still desire and act contrary to the Kingdom of God. Reading Smith’s account of consumerism’s mundane rituals opens our eyes so we can be “ethnographers” who “name and ‘exegete’” our daily liturgies (54).

The counterpart to these rituals that cultivate vice is the liturgy of Christian worship where we enact the narrative of the gospel. Worship is not merely the musical expression of our sincere beliefs; instead, Smith invites us to recover the historical forms of Christian worship. As he explains, “When we realize that worship is also about formation, we will begin to appreciate why form matters. The practices we submit ourselves to in Christian worship are God’s way of rehabituating our loves toward the kingdom” (78). The basic structure of Christian liturgy—which Smith describes as gathering, listening, communing, and sending (96)—narrates us into God’s story. And “it is the story of which I’m a part—in which I’m a character—that determines just what counts as character, as virtue” (89). In other words, the church can’t expect to borrow its liturgical forms from malls, coffee shops, or arenas and not infect the gospel with those narratives, teloi, and loves.

After his exegesis of “the (capital-L) Liturgy of the body of Christ,” Smith spends the last three chapters of his book considering three “(lowercase-l) liturgies” that should feed and be fed by the habits of the church: the liturgies of household, youth ministry and education, and vocation (114). In each of these spheres, he attends not so much to the doctrinal content they confess but to the embodied practices that shape their participants’ loves. All too often, these are in opposition, and the practices generally win. As he notes in regard to how a household might shape its children, “You could have Bible ‘inputs’ every day and yet still have a household whose frantic rhythms are humming along with the consumerist myth of production and consumption. You might have Bible verses on the wall in every room of the house and yet the unspoken rituals reinforce self-centeredness rather than sacrifice” (127). Similarly, in the context of our vocations: “our (culture-) making, our work, is generated as much by what we want as by what we believe. . . . So if you are what you love, then you make what you love” (175). These chapters resist summary because they are wonderfully concrete, befitting a book that argues for the power of embodied habits. They give readers specific ways to adopt healthy liturgies into the rhythms of their own lives and communities.

This book distills the work Smith has undertaken in the first two volumes of his Cultural Liturgies series. Having now presented these ideas in a variety of settings, Smith has surely heard many questions and critiques, and this book responds astutely to possible objections and quibbles.

For instance, some critics may fear Smith’s focus on how habits form our loves minimizes the role played by the Holy Spirit in transforming Christians. Smith indeed draws on insights from social science in ways that suggest much of his argument works on a “naturalistic” level (for example he cites both Charles Duhigg and Daniel Kahneman), but he is explicit that Christian liturgies nevertheless depend on the power of the Spirit. God made humans to be creatures whose loves are shaped by their embodied habits, so it makes sense that he would ordain such practices for his church. As Smith explains, “If you are a creature of habit whose loves have been deformed by disordered secular liturgies, then the best gift God could give you is Spirit-infused practices that will reform and retrain your loves” (68).

Similarly, Smith responds to the critics who have suggested that his focus on our imaginations and bodies means that good doctrine is unimportant. Smith addressed this objection in the Preface to Imagining the Kingdom, and he is clear throughout You Are What You Love that critical reflection on our habits must be informed by good doctrine. Thinking rightly about God is necessary, but it isn’t sufficient for loving well. The goal of his book, then, is to help Christians better understand the power of their everyday habits so they can align them with their ostensible beliefs. As Smith acknowledges, reading his book won’t change our loves: “new knowledge and information might help me see the power of bad habits, but that in itself is not sufficient to undo them. I can’t ‘know’ my way to new habits” (61). Rather, these intellectual reflections on our various liturgies “should propel us into new practices that will reform our hungers by inscribing new habits” (65).

Since the Benedict Option has been a topic of frequent discussion at Mere Orthodoxy, I want to conclude this review by reflecting on the relationship between Smith’s argument in this book and Rod Dreher’s Ben Op. Dreher frames the Ben Op with reference to Smith, but Smith has recently distanced himself from the Ben Op. At several junctures in You Are What You Love, Smith articulates what sounds very like the Ben Op, but with a deliberate emphasis on hope. As Smith noted in his recent conversation about the Ben Op, one of the things he’s learned from Charles Taylor is that hope should be our “dominant posture.” (As a side note, I think Dreher would say that the Ben Op is a hopeful posture, but that’s certainly a contested point.)

Smith draws on Taylor’s notion of “excarnation”—the dis-embodiment of Protestant Christianity and a post-Protestant culture—to argue that a church’s witness will be most effective when their practices are most faithful. In this way, faithful Christian communities do not constitute a withdrawal, but are a form of faithful presence: “[W]hat might stop people short—what might truly haunt them—will be encounters with religious communities who have punched skylights in our brass heaven. It will be ‘ancient’ Christian communities—drawing on the wells of historic, ‘incarnate’ Christian worship with its smells and bells and all its Gothic peculiarity, embodying a spirituality that carries whiffs of transcendence—that will be strange and therefore all the more enticing. . . . In other words, historic Christian worship is not only the heart of discipleship; it might also be the heart of our evangelism” (102). Smith seems to be framing the intentional communities the Ben Op advocated for as an effective means of witnessing to a disenchanted culture.

He articulates a similar paradox in the context of Christian households: “We are not creating a ‘pure’ household into which we withdraw and retreat in order to protect ourselves from the big, bad world. That would be to sink our mission to ‘go.’ Instead, we want to be intentional about the formative rhythms of the household so that it is another recalibrating space that forms us and prepares us to be launched into the world to carry out both the cultural mandate and the Great commission, to bear God’s image to and for our neighbors” (130). Judging from these passages, Smith agrees with the Ben Op’s emphasis on communities who intentionally engage in formative practices. However, his reformed heritage leads him to be more hopeful about whether such communities can thrive while still embedded in the secular world. Smith will certainly address these tensions in the forthcoming third volume of his Cultural Liturgies series, and his deft handling of them here bodes well for that work.

At the heart of Smith’s project is the delightful way in which he reveals the wisdom embedded in the church’s rich liturgical tradition and then translates that wisdom into our contemporary culture. As he writes near the end of his book, “The Christian liturgical tradition should be seen as a resource to foster cultural innovation” (180). In this way, Smith invites us to accept tradition as a gift, learning to creatively work within its life-giving limits. We can begin to do this by adopting embodied “rhythms and rituals and routines that would let the good news sink into us throughout the week,” thereby shaping our loves and orienting our work toward the good of God’s kingdom (188). When we so offer our bodies as living sacrifices, our minds will also be renewed, and we will be transformed by the God who is himself love.

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